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Wars of Colonial Portuguese Africa

For more than a decade prior to 1974 Portugal fought insurgencies in Angola, Portuguese Guinea, and Mozambique. Lisbon based its commitment on its presence for some 500 years in the African territories and its treatment of them as integral parts of Portugal in the Portuguese constitution. Lisbon believed that it had built a multi­racial society which was quite different from that of the former colonial powers and from the white minority governments of the Republic of South Africa and Rhodesia. The Portuguese stressed that the overseas territories were a national heritage which they could not honorably relinquish. The Portuguese also believed that they needed the overseas provinces and their potential wealth and strategic location to maintain Portugal's international status and its economy.

Except for Portuguese Guinea, the African provinces did in fact offer significant immediate and long­term economic returns to certain economic groups in Portugal. Large corporations in the metropole, owned by a few powerful families, controlled virtually all aspects of the territories modern economic sectors, including local industry, commerce, banking, and plantation agriculture. The metropole received preferential trade treatment, and it controlled the territories' sizeable foreign exchange receipts. But the overall returns have not been sufficient to offset the expense of economic development and of fighting the insurgents. Only Angola came close to paying its own way and by 1974 may have been contributing as much as 60 percent to its development and war costs.

In the context of the authoritarian system that had prevailed so long, these stirrings of dissent were, of course,unusual. Since Salazar's time a group of perhaps 40 families who control most of the country's wealth had played a decisive role in the exercise of political power. Their position derived from their control of the economy, ownership of news media, representation in the legislative bodies, and their close connection with top government officials. Consequently, government policy reflected the conservative political, economic, and social views of this group.

Their business interests in Portuguese Africa were immensely profitable, and hence they had long opposed any loosening of Portugal's overseas ties, even though this meant the continuation of a large and expensive military force to combat the African insurgents. The Portuguese oligarchs were nevertheless astute businessmen, and probably would in time adjust to a new Portuguese relationship with the African provinces. Many of them favored more rapid economic growth and closer association with Europe, and most had already diversified their investments so that their wealth was not dependent on their African holdings.

Portugal's economic ties with Western Europe, which in recent years had developed more rapidly than its economic links with the African territories, provided an alternative to the African ties. This factor would make it easier than before for Portuguese commercial interests to consider alternatives in Africa if the cost of fighting the dissidents became too great. Thus if the oligarchy came to feel that Portugal's cause in Africa were lost, its members would opt to get out and cut their losses, thereby protecting their larger interests in the metropole and worldwide.

Military operations had been costly in manpower land in money. When the rebellion began in 1961, Portugal's armed forces numbered 84,000 men of which less than 30,000 were stationed in Africa. As the insurgencies spread, the total figure rose accordingly and leveled off at around 216,000 in 1973, with more than 150,000 serving in Africa. Although some 60 percent of these forces were from the territories ­ many of them black - military service caused a manpower shortage, aggravated by the emigration of young workers from the metropole to Western Europe. But the situation had been bearable because the number of soldiers killed in action had been relatively low, amounting to about 400 in 1973.

The military effort was also a heavy financial burden. In 1960 Portuguese defense spending totaled only $105 million [in then-year dollars]. By 1973, the figure had increased almost five-fold, amounting to more than $521 million. As a percentage of the Portuguese national budget, these defense expenditures represented 27 percent in 1960, 45 percent in 1966-1968, and 30 percent in 1973. As a percentage of GNP, defense costs increased from 4.2 percent in 1960 to a high of 7.4 percent in 1968, leveling off at around 6 percent since 1970. This was almost twice the figure for the principal NATO countries.

These costs had been high enough to raise serious doubts about Lisbon's long­term chances of retaining the provinces. An upsurge of attacks by black insurgents in Mozambique in January and February 1974 caused concern in Lisbon that the internal security problem there might be getting out of hand. But the real concern was over the stalemate in Portuguese Guinea. There the Portuguese controlled the towns and principal roads, but the guerrillas controlled much of the hinterland with neither side able to oust the other.

The situation was discouraging enough to have led some military leaders, such as General António Sebastião Ribeiro de Spínola [Governor, ie, military commander, of Portuguese Guinea from 1968 to 1973], to declare that a military victory was impossible and to urge a political solution, such, as a plan for federation. But such alternatives appealed neither to the far right, nor to the insurgents, who of course wanted immediate freedom.

On 22 February 1974 General Spinola, then vice chief of staff of the armed forces, published his book "Portugal and the Future". Spinola called for a new Portuguese constitution to provide civil liberties and democratic institutions in all areas administered by Portugal, and to create a federation of sovereign states between Portugal and its overseas possessions. Plebiscites to determine if the Africans want to remain with Portugal would be allowed. Spinola acknowledged that this policy would risk the eventual severance of all ties between Portugal and its overseas territories, but he accepted this risk in the belief that continuation of past policies would virtually guarantee such an outcome anyway. As the first major and public challenge to the regime by a high-ranking figure from within the system, Spínola's experience in the African campaigns gave his opinions added weight. The book was widely seen--a correct assessment as it turned out--as the opening salvo in Spínola's ambitious campaign to become president.

Rightists were outraged by the public airing of such views and demanded Spinola's removal along with that of his chief, General Costa Gomes, who supported Spinola. Prime Minister Caetano, who initially resisted this pressure, gave in and removed Spinola and his chief. The very conservative General Luz Cunha, was appointed to Costa Gomes' post and some officers sympathetic to Spinola were reassigned. In response, some petitions were circulated in favor of Spinola, and on 16 March 1974 an army unit near Lisbon, led by young officers sympathetic to Spinola and Costa Gomes, attempted to march on Lisbon. However, they were intercepted and arrested by troops loyal to the government.

The military was deeply divided by these events. Most of the senior officers, led by the new chief of staff of the armed forces, General Luz Cunha, were opposed to General Spinola's ideas which, in their opinion, would lead to the loss of the African provinces. These officers participated in a public oath of loyalty to the government, and the refusal of Costa Gomes and Spinola to participate ­­ on the grounds that the military were not supposed to be involved in politics ­­ was the ostensible reason for their being sacked.

On the other hand, some high ranking officers supported General Spinola, especially his thesis that a military victory was impossible. They did not want the army to become a scapegoat for giving up in Africa and saw Spinola‘s proposals as an honorable way out. But it did not appear that these moderates were interested in an attempt to overthrow the government on African policy. Indeed it was not clear that Spinola and Costa Gomes wanted to do that either. Neither had any known contact with the military regiment that marched on Lisbon, and Spinola said that he was awaiting another military assignment.

A number of junior and middle grade officers also supported Spinola's ideas. Some of these were angered enough over his firing and the arrests and reassignments of his supporters to circulate protest petitions, and some participated in the small scale march on Lisbon. There were also reports in March and April 1974 of dissent among the military in the African provinces, that apparently aroused the concern of the Directorate of Security.

On April 25, 1974, a group of younger officers belonging to an underground organization, the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas--MFA), overthrew the Caetano regime, and Spínola emerged as at least the titular head of the new government. The coup succeeded in hours with virtually no bloodshed. Caetano and other high-ranking officials of the old regime were arrested and exiled, many to Brazil. The military seized control of all important installations.

Spínola regarded the military's action as a simple military coup d'état aimed at reorganizing the political structure with himself as the head, a renovação (renovation) in his words. Within days, however, it became clear that the coup had released long pent-up frustrations when thousands, and then tens of thousands of Portuguese poured into the streets celebrating the downfall of the regime and demanding further change. The coercive apparatus of the dictatorship--secret police, Republican Guard, official party, censorship--was overwhelmed and abolished. Workers began taking over shops from owners, peasants seized private lands, low-level employees took over hospitals from doctors and administrators, and government offices were occupied by workers who sacked the old management and demanded a thorough housecleaning.

Spínola's position was weakened when he was obliged to consent to the independence of Portugal's African colonies, rather than achieving the federal solution he had outlined in his book. Guinea-Bissau gained independence in early September 1974, and talks were underway on the liberation of the other colonies. Spínola attempted to seize full power in late September but was blocked, and resigned from office. His replacement was the moderate General Francisco de Costa Gomes. The People's Republic of Mozambique became independent in September 1975. A few months after the revolutionary government came to power in Lisbon in 1974, it began negotiations with the Angolan factions. Full independence was granted on November 11, 1975.

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Page last modified: 29-01-2013 13:01:41 ZULU